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The Politics of Secular Pilgrimage: Paul-Émile’ Botta’s Red Sea Expedition 1836-39

Sahar Bazzaz, College of the Holy Cross

My paper examines the remarkable career of the French naturalist-cum-diplomat and archaeologist Paul-Emile Botta, who, in 1837, travelled to the Arab lands of the Ottoman Empire with directives from the Muséum d’Histoire naturelle in Paris to collect and document samples of flora and fauna of the Arabian Peninsula (Yemen). He later went on to serve in a diplomatic capacity on behalf of France, first in Jerusalem and then in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. While in Mosul, he excavated ancient Assyrian ruins and contributed to the decipherment of Cuneiform.

My paper considers two aspects of Botta’s eclectic and interdisciplinary career. First, I analyze Botta’s scientific activities in the Ottoman lands of the Middle East by focusing on two concurrent political developments of the early nineteenth century that affected the region: the rise of competing European imperial ambitions in the Middle East (following Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798); and the Ottoman state’s responses to challenges to its authority among subject populations in these territories. Second, my paper offers a preliminary analysis of Botta’s findings during his botanical expeditions in Yemen, the Levant, and Syria (found in his Notice sur un voyage dans l'Arabie heureuse and in Voyage au Syrie et en Palestine).

Sahar Bazazz is Associate Professor in the Department of History at the College of the Holy Cross. Her research focuses on modern Middle East/North Africa, historiography, intellectual history, and colonialism and nationalism in the MENA region. She is particularly interested in the French colonial production of knowledge about the Muslim societies of North Africa. She has considered how French (and later Moroccan nationalist) positivist views of historical inquiry helped marginalize the vast corpus of indigenous Islamic historical writing as irrelevant for the study of the pre-colonial era of North African history (Bazzaz 2008 and 2010). For more than a decade she has been involved in the development and running of an interdisciplinary summer seminar in Greece (Comparative Cultures Seminar/Harvard Summer School) focusing on the history and cultures of the eastern Mediterranean region from antiquity to the present. In this context, she has taught seminars that explore the connection between the rise of modern social science disciplines and European colonialism and imperialism in North Africa and the Middle East. She is coeditor of Imperial Geographies in Byzantine and Ottoman Space (Harvard, 2013), a multidisciplinary and comparative volume which considers the dialectical relationship between geography and empire in the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, two empires of remarkable duration whose political, social, and economic institutions and practices have shaped the lands of the eastern Mediterranean region.

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